Friday, December 25th, 1998
So this is Christmas, and what do I hear? John and Yoko in mp3 splendor in my earphones, as cold rain falls outside our Atlanta home. We’ve got the best of it, as any glance at the weather would tell you. The places where our friends and loved ones live–from Minneapolis to Curtis, Michigan to Seattle to Positively Columbus, Ohio are shivering tonight and, well, it feels cold to us.
And so happy Christmas. We hope you’ve had fun as well. or are having fun. Sam and I just returned from a wonderful evening of family-stuff at Jim and Rebecca’s, which followed an afternoon of just-the-two-of-us closeness as I helped slice potatoes and marinate a turkey for our family dinner tomorrow night. Sounds romantic, right? Well…yeah! Aside from traveling together, some of our most together moments come at times as innocuous as these. It’s a very cool part of being married: an overwhelming closeness from sharing the most seemingly simple experiences.
I find myself just closing my eyes for an instant amidst those moments, grabbing a mental snapshot, saying to my addled and often baffled brain remember this moment, this feeling, this place. And most often I do.
I think there are times if asked the meaning of life, I would answer: to collect a series of those remembered moments. To take them in, to play them back when you need to, to celebrate those sorts of instants.
Sometimes, music–often the trendiest of popular songs, the song of the moment, will help me store and recall these feelings. I could tell you the songs from the radio during the 1980-they killed-John-Lennon December, and the honeymoon-in-London Christmas in 1989. Then you can go way back and attach the Vince Guaraldi ‘Peanuts’ score to my late-sixties holiday (yes, I’ve always identified with the very-roundheaded Charlie Brown) and…well, you get the idea.
Holidays are sometimes supposed to be guaranteed manufacturers of these remembered moments. If they happen conincident with special days, fine, but I say get them where you can.
So I wish you–we wish you, a very happy holiday, and a new year filled with memorable moments.
By the way, ‘War is over, if you want it,’ John says.
Friday, December 25th, 1998
What kind of year was it? Well, don’t draw any conclusions from Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People of 1998 special. Anyone who puts a former Spice Girl and the egomaniacal director of Titanic on a ‘best of 98’ list is either desperate for bookings (what, you couldn’t get Leo?) or seriously out of touch with the vibe here at the near-end of this odd decade.
It might be me who’s out of touch—it wouldn’t be the first time—but I’m sure not hanging around people who are captivated with the latest round the world balloon attempt, or who desperately wanted one of those Furby creatures from hell for Christmas, or who will take Barbara’s word for who was really the most fascinating.
Mostly, I just shake my head. It seems as if that great big self-feeding all-consuming media machine that eats up public relations factoids and spews out hundreds of channels of news and news-like substances day in and day out is..well, just about exhausted. Or maybe just wheezing.
Here’s your darn story on the crush of holiday travel, they seem to say, flopping it up for our perusal on the fake mahogany news desk, offering us a tired old flounder that’s beginning to stink just a little.
Can you picture anyone at home saying “Honey, look! They’re saying the airport will be busy during the holidays. Who’d have thought? We better take precautions! Oh, they’re offering ‘more details!’ Bullet points! Get me a piece of notepaper!”
We got your insightful political analysis, served up as if fresh by Tim Russert: “Look—here’s James Carville and Mary Matalin—let me dust them off a bit—wonder what they’re going to say about all this?” Oh I don’t know, Tim, might it be anything new?
And you want heartwarming, we got heartwarming news. Our top story on Christmas day—Jews fill in for Christians on their jobs! We’ve got team coverage on this breaking heartwarmingness. In other news—it’s cold! People’s cars are stalling out, especially up north! And the cold is messing up—you guessed it—holiday travel!
Part of the sense of exhaustion comes from Repetitive Promo Fatigue (RPF), which it what happens when any human is battered with nonstop hype and tease. How many ways can they say “the latest on the mess in Washington, tonight at 11”? How many times can they slam “breaking news” in our face with a “Ka-thwummmm!” sound before we don’t instinctively jerk our heads toward the screen? “Something god-awful happened. We’ll tell you not now, but tonight at 11.”
But maybe the biggest part of it is that behind the promos is a fatigue in presentation. Darn near every television presenter seems to have that look of “boy, have I done this before.”
I keep waiting for the retro to kick in. One anchor in a loud sports jacket reads the headlines—all of them, national, international, state, and metro—off the AP wire into a huge silver microphone in front of a white-acoustic-tile background, with the sounds of long-dead teletypes clacking in the background—for a total of 15 minutes, that’s it. Big horn-rimmed glasses. Crew cut. It could be John or Monica, take your pick.
News, in black-and-white.
Sunday, December 13th, 1998
Boy, it’s nice and quiet around here, but then again, it’s darn near five in the morning, so I guess that isn’t surprising. I’ve gone through an evening of strange mental wanderings…from filling my mind with the realities of Atlanta media for my latest Media Rare to trying to remember the name of someone I met in 1988 to looking up a bunch of old friend’s names on AltaVista or Switchboard or one of those intrusions on our privacy.
Then, I went back and read a bunch of my old journal stuff from the late eighties, was stunned by my naive mind, and then began a surfing extravaganza that bounced me from one side of the internet to the next.
Then I checked through some old emails and was stunned to find that the last time I thought about talking with some of my old Goddard friends was, indeed, about one year ago to the day.
One of the things on my desk, virtual or otherwise, is the holiday letter we’re sending out with cards. Sammy tackled it, and for the most part managed to cram in the significant events of the past two years of our lives. Reading it over, it seems as if we travel a great deal, and our happiest times are seeing people we care about. No surprises there, I guess. She also makes it sounds as if I have a terrifyingly large number of computers on my desk. Okay, three.
I think one of the strangest things is that although I’ve been following the news fairly precisely, I feel completely disconnected from the events in Washington. The House Judiciary Committee is casting a historic vote, and I (like many others) feel a sense of "oh, of course they would do that. Right along party lines? Of course. Clinton is apologetic? Sure, that’s what we’d expect too."
So onward to the end of this year, which as I point out in one of those Media Rares, is just some arbitrary boundary. I’m sure that when the cosmic odometer flips from 1999 to 2000, I’ll have that same sense of "oh, of course."
Enjoy your holidays, we wish you, friend or stranger alike. And if you’re a friend who hasn’t reconnected in a while, make the first move and make me feel guilty. OK?
Saturday, December 12th, 1998
I wish I knew exactly what powerful generic encoding compels journalists to sum up the year past in December. We’ve got "the best of" lists. We have countdowns (Steve Craig on 99X :"Ooh, everyone loves countdowns!"yes, he was kidding.) We’ve got men, women, and gerbils of the year. Bests, top tens, years in reviewthere just seems to be an overwhelming chronological imperative: "Sum up! Sum up!"
Let me let you in on a small secret: December is just another month. And 1998 was just another year. The next two years, alleged dramatic crossings of the millennial boundary, will be generic gatherings of a dozen months, just like this one; maybe rainier than the last, maybe with more hurricanes, maybe not. We won’t, three years from now, suddenly soar into orbit on the Pan Am Shuttle, dressed in 60s mod in 70s earth tones, listening to Strauss, chatting into picturephones. Our planet will continue to get warmer or cooler, depending on who you believe, and more and more viewers will defect from the three networks to Fox, cable, and what-have-you-per-view. Your car will not become electrified, or develop the ability to hover. Cable will not be priced at what its worth.
Hey, now that’s clear in everyone’s minds, let’s look back over the past twelve months, and discern some method in the madness that is the media in Atlanta. I think the first distinction I would draw from this past year’s emissions (spoken, printed, broadcast, and so on) would be that this really wasn’t the year for cataclysmic upheaval. We didn’t have dramatic anchor shifts from one station to another (OK, Ken Watts. Yeah, thats big), and big heads didn’t roll at the Journal-Constitution.
Morning radio, cutting edge bad boys and girls all, seemed almost institutionalized, with Barnes, Leslie, and Jimmy (for example) cranking out shows that were, well, fine (which is my father-in-law’s way of saying "really not that good, but, whatever.") Gary McKee played the nostalgia card as long as he could at Z-93 (he’s leaving quietly.) Departed 96 Rock morning man Christopher Rude resurfaced…as their afternoon man. Fine, fine. Neal Boortz plumbed new depths of obnoxiousness on the AM band (especially when the subject turned to Clinton/Lewinsky), attracting inexplicable numbers of listeners who just plain hate him. Both Boortz and the Morning Xers have "Best of" CDs outwhy anyone beyond their immediate families would want to hear these performances again and again is beyond my ability to explain.
Local television threw itself in to the coverage of the 98 elections, but most of the sound and the fury came from the staggeringly ugly negative ads in between the news segments. WXIA and WPBA came up with the great idea of pooling their coverage efforts, first during the primary (hmm, NBC and PBS did the same thing in 96), and did well enough that WSB and GPTV copied their efforts during November’s election night. WSB led the charge exposing Ralph David Abernathy’s problems above and beyond merely a drug-sniffing dog at the airport, and WAGA submerged their call letters behind the way-too-trendy "Fox 5" moniker; their Doug Richards continues to stand out as the best feature reporter in this market. And did I mention that audiences for local newseverywherecontinue to dwindle?
And then theres daily newsprint. Which, as you know, in this town, is the one and only (and I mean only) AJC. I admittedly have had a problem with this paper since they lost Bill Kovach a decade or so ago, and throughout 1998, theyve seem to have settled into a bipolar embrace of the two extremes of modern journalism. For every adroitly-written Ann Hardie look at governmental success and excess we have to wade past unreadable factoid-filled blurbettes that pass for news coverage. For every cogent essay by Cynthia Tucker we must endure endless amounts of cut-and-paste Peach Buzz. Were forced to find the content in and around their Vent. So Im closing one eyeand squintingand, like living with a schizophrenic, Ill celebrate the good that the AJC does, in and around that uh other stuff.
So, squinting, grimacing, crossing my fingers, and gulping black coffee, Im looking forward to another arbitrary 12 monthsomedia. Were in for a fine time.
Saturday, December 5th, 1998
So, just what is a scoop? Whats an exclusive? What does it mean to score a beat on your fellow reporters?
As with so many things, the answer is a lot more ambiguous these days. When the news broke that Tom Hanks that he might be reconsidering his stalwart support of President Clinton, we found out first not by reading the New Yorker one-on-one with Hanks, but by hearing broadcast reports saying "In an upcoming New Yorker interview, Tom Hanks says "
The New Yorker had the story "first," but we heard about it first on television because, like many other weeklies, the magazine lets TV, radio, and daily print reporters get an early look at their editionsometimes several days before it hits newsstands.
Why? Because the print publication hopes that getting word out fast builds good word of mouth. And when the magazine (as most do) has a circulation far below the level of national broadcast audiences, they reach significantly beyond their actual readership by letting the more immediate media report on their "scoop."
For me, reporting on reporting is only barely a step above regurgitating a press release from any company. Its not investigating. Its not gathering (heck, the information is often force-fed to you). Theres no attempt at context. Its promoing.
And it gets particularly bizarre when the report on the report becomes uh, the report.
In the Hanks case, the affable actor was able to get a denial outclaiming that the New Yorker piece distorted what he was sayingbefore subscribers plucked their copies of the magazine from mailboxes to read the interview in question. His statement came in response to the report on the report. In a certain sense, the hoorah was over before it began.
This kind of reporting-on-reporting-as-promotion has become a refined art, especially in the practiced hands of someone like Barbara Walters. Whenever she scores a big "get"like the recent exclusive (ooh!) interview with Ken Starr, you can count on seeing her a day or two before on Entertainment Tonight offering juicy tidbits from her ABC exclusivewhich, I guess, is then just a bit less exclusive.
ET has always done a big business in all manner of pseudo-exclusives, hustling 10 second clips of movies, music videos, even hairstyle changes up before our eyes. Ooh, its a hair flip youll see first and exclusively on ET!
Of course, any "exclusive" on Entertainment Tonight doesnt seem quite as dramatic after ET runs the video five or six times promoting the story before they get to telling the story.
And when television isnt immediate enough, theres now of course the even more instant (and transitory) medium of the Internet. Print reporters, especially those at dailies, regard this as something of a great equalizer, because they can file half-sourced, incompletely-researched stories as or more quickly than their broadcast counterparts. Its part of that acceleration syndrome I keep whining about, where the only thing that gets sacrificed in the whirl of information and the dizzying spin of the news cycles is thoughtfulness, carefulness, and perspective.
And who has time for those qualities these days, anyway?